Wednesday, March 30, 2011
After seeing Alexander Medvedkin’s 1935 Soviet silent film Happiness, Sergei Eisenstein supposedly remarked, “Today, I saw how a Bolshevik laughs.” Strangely, he meant it as a compliment. But viewers of this beautifully barbed fable could be excused for thinking otherwise, given that every laugh in the story comes at the expense of revolutionaries turned greedy and foolish. This is laughter skittering along the sharp edge of despair—how many comedies contain two suicide attempts? One, brilliantly, involves an old woman attempting to hang herself on a windmill (the blades pick her up and drop her down again and again, and the laughter gets mighty queasy but quick). The other occurs when our hapless hero—Khmyr, a peasant so poor even robbers have to give him money—says farewell to the cruel world and starts building his own casket, much to the anger of the authorities, who are the only ones allowed to authorize death here. His punishment: whipped for 33 years, shot 12 times, killed 7. After which, the film dryly notes, his faith in happiness is somewhat shaken. Still, he discovers some kind of joy by film’s end when, flush with new wealth, he drops a bag in the road just to watch two beggars scramble for it. Little wonder this surreal, savage film was banned in the Soviet Union for decades. The laughter of one Bolshevik feeds on the tears of another, and in a world of supposed equality, happiness for one little man is just feeling bigger than someone else.